Shirt Alert

For casual wear, the jazzed-up polo is suiting men to a T

July 11, 2005|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Start saying your goodbyes now, menfolk. The era of the T-shirt is dwindling.

Oh, you can still wash the car in your T, mow the lawn in it, play a little basketball in it.

But for most other casual events, the polo shirt has trumped your trusted T.

That's right. The polo. You remember it from the 1980s preppy craze. Short-sleeved, two buttons. Tidy little collar.

After seasons and seasons of T-shirts - rumpled, oversized or emblazoned with irreverent sayings - the polo has returned, taking men's fashion one step further into Grownupville.

"The thing is we're seeing men starting to dress up again," says Gregg Andrews, a fashion director at Nordstrom. "We've seen men go away from a basic T-shirt to a woven shirt. We're seeing collars coming back on shirts, basically. And the polo shirt is just a way to put a collar on a T-shirt."

The polo shirt is a staple of American men's fashion. In country clubs, golf tournaments and suburban malls, it never really goes away completely. Casual Fridays, in fact, ought to be nicknamed Polo-Shirt Day.

"But sometimes classics become fashion," says David A. Levin, president and CEO of Casual Male Retail Group. "That's what's happened here. It all comes around again sooner or later and reinvents itself. And we're right in the thick of it. This year, [the polo shirt] is by far our No. 1 increased item in the store. By far."

In tourist areas and airports, at Olive Gardens and backyard barbecues, everywhere you look, polo shirts abound.

"I think it looks nicer," says Anthony Perrotta, 16, who was wearing an American Eagle polo shirt while hanging out with his parents and grandparents at the Inner Harbor last week.

"When I go out in public, I like to look nicer, and I think, maybe, the collar makes it look nicer," says the Fallston High School junior. "It seems like it's growing in popularity a lot more."

This season, the polo has a fresh, new look. Jazzed up by the same influence hip-hop has had on fashion in general, today's polos, in many cases, are bigger and brighter than they were in the 1980s. Think The Breakfast Club meets BET's 106 & Park.

Particularly in urban wear, which has always been flashy, the polo shirt has been shot through with drama. The polo shirt made by such labels as Sean John, Akademiks, Rocawear and Madsoul are very bold, with funky stripes. The urban polo is a fashion statement, not a fashion staple.

"The tastemakers in the urban market are the actors, athletes, singers - and that's who the kids look to to see what they're wearing," says Zareth Edghill McFarlane, an expert in urbanwear trends, and a partner in K.A. Kitties, a contemporary denim collection for women. "And that [market] has definitely grown up."

Hip-hop's style-setting celebrities who used to rock sneakers, T-shirts and hats-to-the-back are now wearing designer duds. They're tucking shirts in, wearing cuff-links. They're using irons. "Jay Z has definitely pioneered that whole preppy look, and he's a perfect example of someone who has grown up in the urban market. They see Jay Z in a pink polo and they say, `If he can wear it then I can wear it,' " McFarlane says. "Puffy is a tastemaker. He tosses back and forth from putting on a suit to putting on a polo shirt. Jennifer Lopez will wear a [Roberto] Cavalli dress on the red carpet and she'll wear a polo shirt in the evening as an around-the-way girl."

Not everyone looks to celebs for their style cues, though.

Baltimore's Tony Dargan, 39, who was visiting a friend at Hair Strategies Unisex Salon on North Avenue last week, says he's always liked the more "classy casual" look of a polo shirt, and is glad that fashion has finally caught up to his idea of stylish day-to-day dressing.

"It's dressier," he says of the white Rocawear polo with blue, gray and black stripes he was wearing at the barbershop, paired street-style with long jean shorts and sneakers. "You can wear it up or down, in or out your pants. The styles and the colors to me are very fashionable."

And it's not just the city kids who are making the '80s polo their own. Even the prepsters have added an ounce of fly to their fashion.

"Classic colors would be black, navy, white," Levin says. "And what we're seeing [now] is pinks, yellows, greens, blues. But very fashionable shades of blues - not a navy, but ocean blues - [and] mint green, hot pink."

In preppier markets - the J. Crews and Abercrombies of the world - the polo shirt is slightly wider through the body than the 1980s incarnation, but hasn't grown quite as large or long as the polos in the inner cities.

"The fit of it is different. It tends to be more slim cut. The sleeve is a little bit shorter," says Andrews, of Nordstrom. "But we're seeing it in a lot of bright colors: citrus colors, bright lemon-yellow, bright lime, bright pink. And stripes, lots of stripes."

And the new polo shirt can also be layered - unheard of before now. Two polo shirts worn together give a hint of fashion-forward at the collar. Three polos scream metrosexual.

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